Tag: The Atlantic

Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving

Thanks to Einstein for today’s quote-as-title. Having once again witnessed the joy of electric scooters in Lisbon recently, I thought I’d look at this trend of ‘micromobility’.

Let’s begin with Horace Dediu, who explains the term:

Simply, Micromobility promises to have the same effect on mobility as microcomputing had on computing. Bringing transportation to many more and allowing them to travel further and faster.  I use the term micromobility precisely because of the connotation with computing and the expansion of consumption but also because it focuses on the vehicle rather than the service. The vehicle is small, the service is vast.

Horace Dediu

Micromobility covers mainly electric scooters and (e-)bikes, which can be found in many of the cities I’ve visited over the past year. Not in the UK, though, where riding electric scooters is technically illegal. Why? Because of a 183 year-old law, explains Jeff Parsons Metro:

You can’t ride scooters on the road, because the DVLA requires that electric vehicles be registered and taxed. And you can’t ride scooters on the pavement because of the 1835 Highways Act that prohibits anyone from riding a ‘carriage’ on the pavement.

Jeff Parsons

It’s only a matter of time, though, before legislation is passed to remove this anachronism. And, to be honest, I can’t imagine the police with their stretched resources pulling over anyone who’s using one sensibly.

Electric scooters in particular are great and, if you haven’t tried one, you should. Florent Crivello, one of Uber’s product managers, explains why they’re not just fun, but actually valuable:

  1. Cleaner and more energy efficient
  2. More space efficient
  3. Safer
  4. Making the world city a better place
  5. Force for economic inclusion

You might be wondering about the third one of these, as I was. Crivello includes this chart:

Courtesy of Florent Crivello

Of course, as he points out, you can prevent cars running into scooters, bikes, and pedestrians by building separate lanes for them, with a high kerb in between. Countries that have done this, like the Netherlands, have seen a sharp decline in fatalities and injuries.

Despite the title, I’m focusing on electric scooters because of my enthusiasm for them and because of the huge growth since they became a thing about 18 months ago. Just look at this chart that Megan Rose Dickey includes in a recent TechCrunch article:

Chart courtesy of TechCrunch

One of the biggest downsides to electric scooters at the moment, and one which threatens the whole idea of ‘micromobility’ is over-supply. As this photograph in an article by Alan Taylor for The Atlantic shows, this can quickly get out-of-hand when VC-backed companies are involved:

Unused shared bikes in a vacant lot in Xiamen, Fujian province, China (photo courtesy of The Atlantic)

This can scare cities, who don’t know how to deal with these kinds of potential consequences. That’s why it’s refreshing to see Charlotte in North Carolina lead the way by partnering with Passport, a transportation logistics company. As John R. Quain reports for Digital Trends:

“When e-scooters first came to town,” said Charlotte’s city manager Marcus Jones, “it left our shared bike program in the dust.”

[…]

By tracking scooter rentals and coordinating it with other information about public transit routes, congestion, and parking information, Passport can report on where scooters and bikes tend to be idle, where they get the most use, and how they might be deployed to serve more people. Furthermore, rather than railing against escooters, such information can help a city encourage proper use and behavior.

John R. Quain

I’m really quite excited about e-scooters, and can’t wait until I can buy and use one legally in the UK!


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Sometimes even to live is an act of courage

Thank you to Seneca for the quotation for today’s title, which sprang to mind after reading Rosie Spinks’ claim in Quartz that we’ve reached ‘peak influencer’.

Where once the social network was basically lunch and sunsets, it’s now a parade of strategically-crafted life updates, career achievements, and public vows to spend less time online (usually made by people who earn money from social media)—all framed with the carefully selected language of a press release. Everyone is striving, so very hard.

Thank goodness for that. The selfie-obsessed influencer brigade is an insidious effect of the neoliberalism that permeates western culture:

For the internet influencer, everything from their morning sun salutation to their coffee enema (really) is a potential money-making opportunity. Forget paying your dues, or working your way up—in fact, forget jobs. Work is life, and getting paid to live your best life is the ultimate aspiration.

[…]

“Selling out” is not just perfectly OK in the influencer economy—it’s the raison d’etre. Influencers generally do not have a craft or discipline to stay loyal to in the first place, and by definition their income comes from selling a version of themselves.

As Yascha Mounk, writing in The Atlantic, explains the problem isn’t necessarily with social networks. It’s that you care about them. Social networks flatten everything into a never-ending stream. That stream makes it very difficult to differentiate between gossip and (for example) extremely important things that are an existential threat to democratic institutions:

“When you’re on Twitter, every controversy feels like it’s at the same level of importance,” one influential Democratic strategist told me. Over time, he found it more and more difficult to tune Twitter out: “People whose perception of reality is shaped by Twitter live in a different world and a different country than those off Twitter.”

It’s easier for me to say these days that our obsession with Twitter and Instagram is unhealthy. While I’ve never used Instagram (because it’s owned by Facebook) a decade ago I was spending hours each week on Twitter. My relationship with the service has changed as I’ve grown up and it has changed — especially after it became a publicly-traded company in 2013.

Twitter, in particular, now feels like a neverending soap opera similar to EastEnders. There’s always some outrage or drama running. Perhaps it’s better, as Catherine Price suggests in The New York Times, just to put down our smartphones?

Until now, most discussions of phones’ biochemical effects have focused on dopamine, a brain chemical that helps us form habits — and addictions. Like slot machines, smartphones and apps are explicitly designed to trigger dopamine’s release, with the goal of making our devices difficult to put down.

This manipulation of our dopamine systems is why many experts believe that we are developing behavioral addictions to our phones. But our phones’ effects on cortisol are potentially even more alarming.

Cortisol is our primary fight-or-flight hormone. Its release triggers physiological changes, such as spikes in blood pressure, heart rate and blood sugar, that help us react to and survive acute physical threats.

Depending on how we use them, social networks can stoke the worst feelings in us: emotions such as jealousy, anger, and worry. This is not conducive to healthy outcomes, especially for children where stress has a direct correlation to the take-up of addictive substances, and to heart disease in later life.

I wonder how future generations will look back at this time period?


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Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things

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Things that people think are wrong (but aren’t)

I’ve collected a bunch of diverse articles that seem to be around the topic of things that people think are wrong, but aren’t really. Hence the title.

I’ll start with something that everyone over a certain age seems to have a problem with, except for me: sleep. BBC Health lists five sleep myths:

  1. You can cope on less than five hours’ sleep
  2. Alcohol before bed boosts your sleep
  3. Watching TV in bed helps you relax
  4. If you’re struggling to sleep, stay in bed
  5. Hitting the snooze button
  6. Snoring is always harmless

My smartband regularly tells me that I sleep better than 93% of people, and I think that’s because of how much I prioritise sleep. I’ve also got a system, which I’ve written about before for the times when I do have a rough night.

I like routine, but I also like mixing things up, which is why I appreciate chunks of time at home interspersed with travel. Oliver Burkeman, writing in The Guardian, suggests, however, that routines aren’t the be-all and end-all:

Some people are so disorganised that a strict routine is a lifesaver. But speaking as a recovering rigid-schedules addict, trust me: if you click excitedly on each new article promising the perfect morning routine, you’re almost certainly not one of those people. You’re one of the other kind – people who’d benefit from struggling less to control their day, responding a bit more intuitively to the needs of the moment. This is the self-help principle you might call the law of unwelcome advice: if you love the idea of implementing a new technique, it’s likely to be the opposite of what you need.

Expecting something new to solve an underlying problem is a symptom of our culture’s focus on the new and novel. While there’s so much stuff out there we haven’t experienced, should we spend our lives seeking it out to the detriment of the tried and tested, the things that we really enjoy?

On the recommendation of my wife, I recently listened to a great episode of the Off Menu podcast featuring Victoria Cohen Mitchell. It’s not only extremely entertaining, but she mentions how, for her, a nice Ploughman’s lunch is better than some fancy meal.

This brings me to an article in The Atlantic by Joe Pinsker, who writes that kids who watch and re-watch the same film might be on to something:

In general, psychological and behavioral-economics research has found that when people make decisions about what they think they’ll enjoy, they often assign priority to unfamiliar experiences—such as a new book or movie, or traveling somewhere they’ve never been before. They are not wrong to do so: People generally enjoy things less the more accustomed to them they become. As O’Brien [professor at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business] writes, “People may choose novelty not because they expect exceptionally positive reactions to the new option, but because they expect exceptionally dull reactions to the old option.” And sometimes, that expected dullness might be exaggerated.

So there’s something to be said for re-reading novels you read when you were younger instead of something shortlisted for a prize, or discounted in the local bookshop. I found re-reading Dostoevsky’s Crime & Punishment recently exhilarating as I probably hadn’t ready it since I became a parent. Different periods of your life put different spins on things that you think you already know.


Also check out:

  • The ‘Dark Ages’ Weren’t As Dark As We Thought (Literary Hub) — “At the back of our minds when thinking about the centuries when the Roman Empire mutated into medieval Europe we are unconsciously taking on the spurious guise of specific communities.”
  • An Easy Mode Has Never Ruined A Game (Kotaku) — “There are myriad ways video games can turn the dials on various systems to change our assessment of how “hard” they seem, and many developers have done as much without compromising the quality or integrity of their games.”
  • Millennials destroyed the rules of written English – and created something better (Mashable) — “For millennials who conduct so many of their conversations online, this creativity with written English allows us to express things that we would have previously only been conveyed through volume, cadence, tone, or body language.”


Murmurations

Starlings where I live in Northumberland, England, also swarm like this, but not in so many numbers.

I love the way that we give interesting names to groups of animals English (e.g. a ‘murder’ of crows). There’s a whole list of them on Wikipedia.

Source: The Atlantic

The link between sleep and creativity

I’m a big fan of sleep. Since buying a smartwatch earlier this year, I’ve been wearing it all of the time, including in bed at night. What I’ve found is that I’m actually a good sleeper, regularly sleeping better than 95% of other people who use the same Mi Fit app.

Like most people, after a poor night’s sleep I’m not at my best the next day. This article by Ed Yong in The Atlantic helps explain why.

As you start to fall asleep, you enter non-REM sleep. That includes a light phase that takes up most of the night, and a period of much heavier slumber called slow-wave sleep, or SWS, when millions of neurons fire simultaneously and strongly, like a cellular Greek chorus. “It’s something you don’t see in a wakeful state at all,” says Lewis. “You’re in a deep physiological state of sleep and you’d be unhappy if you were woken up.”

During that state, the brain replays memories. For example, the same neurons that fired when a rat ran through a maze during the day will spontaneously fire while it sleeps at night, in roughly the same order. These reruns help to consolidate and strengthen newly formed memories, integrating them into existing knowledge. But Lewis explains that they also help the brain extract generalities from specifics—an idea that others have also supported.

We’ve known for generations that, if we’ve got a problem to solve or a decision to make, that it’s a good idea to ‘sleep on it’. Science is catching up with folk wisdom.

The other phase of sleep—REM, which stands for rapid eye movement—is very different. That Greek chorus of neurons that sang so synchronously during non-REM sleep descends into a cacophonous din, as various parts of the neocortex become activated, seemingly at random. Meanwhile, a chemical called acetylcholine—the same one that Loewi identified in his sleep-inspired work—floods the brain, disrupting the connection between the hippocampus and the neocortex, and placing both in an especially flexible state, where connections between neurons can be more easily formed, strengthened, or weakened.

The difficulty is that our sleep quality is affected by blue light confusing the brain as to what kind of day it is. That’s why we’re seeing increasing numbers of devices changing your screen colour towards the red end of the spectrum in the evening. If you have disrupted sleep, you miss out on an important phase of your sleep cycle.

Crucially, they build on one another. The sleeping brain goes through one cycle of non-REM and REM sleep every 90 minutes or so. Over the course of a night—or several nights—the hippocampus and neocortex repeatedly sync up and decouple, and the sequence of abstraction and connection repeats itself. “An analogy would be two researchers who initially work on the same problem together, then go away and each think about it separately, then come back together to work on it further,” Lewis writes.

“The obvious implication is that if you’re working on a difficult problem, allow yourself enough nights of sleep,” she adds. “Particularly if you’re trying to work on something that requires thinking outside the box, maybe don’t do it in too much of a rush.”

As the article states, there’s further research to be done here. But, given that sleep (along with exercise and nutrition) is one of the three ‘pillars’ of productivity, this certainly chimes with my experience.

Source: The Atlantic